When (supposedly) ‘good’ Jews do ‘bad’ things
By Laura Seymour

This year for LearningFest, I conducted a session entitled “Confronting Scandal.” I struggle with this topic because I struggle when I hear about Jews who do “bad things.” I did read Erica Brown’s book, “Confronting Scandal,” and while I found it to be well-written, it didn’t provide me with the answers I’d hoped for.
Now, when people attend LearningFest sessions, they sometimes want a lecture and sometimes want to talk. I opted for talking and was upfront in my comments about my struggles with confronting scandals, especially when it comes to Jews who are part of scandals or who even start such scandals.
So we began with this topic: Think of an incident during which a Jewish person in a public arena did wrong. Think about the feelings that this person’s actions evoked.
I was fortunate in that participants at this session were very outspoken and eager to share their own concerns about Jews and scandals. We talked about Madoff, of course. We also brought the discussion down to community leaders; rabbis and teachers who might have done wrong. We also discussed teshuvah — repentance — as well as forgiveness and forgetting. Everyone had thoughts and the discussion was lively. But for me, the questions remain unanswered. Why do we feel responsible for another Jew’s behavior? Are we judged differently as a group? Do we have collective guilt and should we? And perhaps the larger question, does a gut response we have when a Jew does wrong have to do with our strong Jewish identity?
One thing I learned through the “Confronting Scandal” section is that there really are no right or wrong answers to these questions, but they do need to be discussed with our children. Values are passed on to our children through actions and discussion and the feelings evoked when a Jew does something bad is both our burden and responsibility, especially as we’ve been chosen to be a “light unto the nations.”
It’s never too early to start exploring this ideas of “bad Jews” with your children. As such, you can talk about the following with them.

  • How bad does a Jew have to be to be considered a bad Jew?
  • Is “badness” defined by the number of people affected or the extent of the harm?
  • Can “badness” be balanced by other acts of goodness, or is it a label that is all-encompassing? What if a white-collar criminal is also a philanthropist? What about the pedophile who brought many people to Judaism through his outreach? Does that change anything, or is it irrelevant?
  • Then there is the issue of how bad the public deems these acts. Does that change the way that we think of the person behind them?

Laura Seymour is director Camping Services at the Jewish Community Center of Dallas.

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